America's Gun Ceremony - by Alexa Grunow

At a certain point, the way an American reacts to a mass-shooting becomes a ritual. We get a news alert about another mass shooting, and realize, for the first time, we are not surprised. Regardless of our individual political beliefs, our reactions are always painfully predictable. We universally exhale: “This is awful. Why did this happen? Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” #PrayForNameOfCityHere starts trending on Twitter. A new Facebook profile filter appears. Our flag flies half-mast. We express shock at the inhumanity and the senselessness as if this were happening for the first time. A different day, a different city, another shooting; more shocked masses.

“This is disgusting,” any given liberal might say of the inaction to combat the epidemic of mass shootings. “This is,” any given conservative political pundit might cry, “the price of freedom.” The divide, less than a full day later, begins creeping in. The responses are never new; we know who will say what, before they even open their mouths. American liberals start to decry gun violence, as we do every time it enters the news cycle. American conservatives slam liberals for it, “this is not the time for politics, it is the time for thoughts and prayers.” If that is all we can do in the wake of a mass-shooting, I rant to a friend (as a million others probably do in the wake of a mass shooting), then we would be perpetually down on our knees.

But, we are not of course; we only pray, collectively, for about a week, maybe two if the news cycle is slow. Our national conscious seems to be as easily distracted as our Twitter feeds. Our flag will fly high again soon enough. Our collective sadness and despair are genuine, but national attention only lasts so long. Outrage fades with yesterday’s headlines. We go back to our everyday lives.

Except that gun violence has become a part of our everyday lives, both indirectly and directly, for far too many of us. At a movie theater, a concert, or even an elementary school—a rational fear lurks in the back of our minds. Nowhere is entirely safe from gun violence in America, so our fear is not unfounded. But, perhaps precisely because mass-shootings have become so pervasive—because none of the horrific shootings over the years have been enough to shock us into action—our collective fear is not strong enough to make us alter our behavior. If we did, we would never go anywhere; living our lives is worth the risk. And anyway, we might console ourselves, mass shootings are much more likely in the United States than other developed countries, but they are still uncommon.

That’s true enough, but the mass shootings that dominate the news cycle—while terrifying and tragic—are only a small portion of the problem. Two-thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides, making them the most common gun fatality, followed by homicides (which make up nearly a third of all gun deaths). (Five Thirty-Eight). America’s gun homicide is 25 times higher than that of other wealthy countries. The overall homicide rate is 7 times higher, and 2.7 times higher when gun deaths are discounted. (Washington Post). Americans are substantially more likely to be victims of gun violence than those in comparable countries, despite a similar crime rate.

There is no structural constraint preventing us from mitigating the level of gun violence in America. The obscenely high rate of gun violence is fueled by policy; by systemic racism and lax gun control laws. Our problem is not that we are plagued by some unstoppable force, but that America seems to only acknowledge it has a gun violence problem when dozens of people were randomly shot at. Our problem is that, in a country where people are repeatedly killed for no particular reason, half of us shout that trying to combat an epidemic is “insensitive to the victims.” The problem is that, collectively, our concern tends to follow a mercurial news cycle. Nationally, we are caught in a cycle of ceremonial national mourning that never results in anything but some nice words.

If we want to break that cycle, we need to talk about gun violence when a mass-shooting is not in the headlines. If we truly want to honor the victims of Las Vegas and Orlando and San Bernardino and far too many other cities—we need to work toward ensuring their numbers do not grow. Regardless of political beliefs, we all need to acknowledge that this is not the normal state of things—that there is a reason that the United States alone among developed countries suffers from exasperatingly high levels of gun violence, despite a low crime rate. We need to remember that, because the United States is unique in its rate of gun violence, there are solutions. We do not need to suffer mass casualties.

There are, of course, plenty of Americans who are involved in advocating for policies likely to reduce gun violence. There are admirable organizations devoted to this cause, such as Giffords and the Brady Campaign. And many of us support tighter gun control laws (75% of Americans support a 30-day waiting period for all gun sales, according to a Gallup poll). We have the will and the resources to make the country a safer place; but we, collectively, need to do more. All of us need to get involved, to the extent that each of us as individuals are able. And we need to do this even when the country is not in national mourning.

Alexa Grunow